Book Review: The Enchanted

The EnchantedSet in present day between the damp, stone walls of an old prison, we are told the sobering story of what life looks life for a small selection of death row inmates. Primarily we hear from the unnamed, mute man who observes the goings-on of the prison, along with some hallucinatory elements that let the reader know just how far gone this gentleman is mentally and emotionally – that he sees small men hammering in the walls, little sparkling motes swirling overhead while he reads, golden horses that stampede down the corridors… It is through his eyes that we learn about this enchanted, doomed place.

It’s also through him that we learn about The Lady, the one who works to trade executions for life sentences, who investigates horrid pasts and interviews inmates and subjects herself to details she shares with no one. The lady is dedicated and burdened.

There’s the fallen priest who administers last rites, even though he’s technically not allowed to. There’s the warden, whose wife is dying of cancer. And then there’s York, the lady’s current case, who has accepted his impending death and makes the lady’s investigation difficult.

That about covers the plot of The Enchanted, but I haven’t even told you what it’s really about. It might surprise you that we never really know what these men did. We know the results of what they did, and we see how they behave inside the prison toward one another, but details are only alluded to, not freely given, which I appreciate since our own imaginations can take us to those dark places just fine.

This is a difficult book to read on account of its content. Let this be a warning to you in case if you’re sensitive to real-life horror stories, the sort of things that make you believe without a doubt that evil exists in the world. But it’s also a book that tugs at your heart, drawing out the tiniest bit of empathy for these horrible creatures because it’s too easy to connect the dots from childhood to adulthood. It’s a book that leaves you wondering if there are any good solutions.

Finally, there is one twist. One solid twist and it sneaks in quietly at the end. Don’t miss it because it’s perfection. It comes at the right time when you cannot read about these people anymore. When you finish The Enchanted, you will be glad to leave the prison. You will feel sad and you will wonder about the differences between real life and fiction.

Interesting note: When the author isn’t writing books, she’s working as a death penalty investigator.

Buy The Enchanted here. 

Book Review: Night Film

There are about ten pages I would cut from Night Film, but they don’t transpire until the last sliver of the book, and by then, you are sprinting so breathlessly through the narrative because you cannot turn back from the resolution that is so very close. I forgive Marisha Pessl for those ten pages because the rest of the book is really fantastic.

To say this book is a page-turner is to cheapen it with cliché, so instead I’ll say that Night Film has usurped a book in my Top Ten list. I’m not sure which one gets the ax in order to make room for Pessl, but I’ll think on it and let you know.

It’s important to note before we go any further that Night Film is a psychological thriller. It’s also bit horror and a hair supernatural, two genres I don’t usually enjoy. In fact, there was one point during the story that I sat back, stared at the wall, and considered, “Shall I go further?” and then I realized that was a silly question. There was no turning back.

Night FilmNight Film begins with an eery prologue, a technique I don’t always love. If you’re gonna start a book, then just start it. I don’t like bait. But here, it works. Scott McGrath is a journalist (and our narrator) who’s nursing some professional wounds after failing to procure a reliable story about the elusive, enigmatic cult movie maker Stanislas Cordova. He’s also nursing a broken heart after losing his wife to a more successful man. So he’s running around Central Park in the dark when a girl in a red coat emerges from nothing. Wherever he runs, there she is. She is real, but not. He can’t decide. It spooks him. He’s unnerved, and thus begins the book.

The girl, we learn, is Ashley Cordova, the movie maker’s daughter and she’s just turned up dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Apparent suicide. The Cordova family is fraught with tragedy – too many to tragedies to be normal, McGrath discerns. And so, the puzzle sucks McGrath back into the twisted world of researching Cordova’s underworld of grotesque movies, which can’t be seen just anywhere, by the way. Think Stanley Kubrick, but darker. The man stays hidden and unseen. Think J.D. Salinger, but more ghostly.

McGrath collects two sidekicks along the way – Nora and Hopper – two young people with their own sordid histories (unrelated) and strange connections to Ashley (related?). I am being careful here because there is too much room for spoilers… In this book is every mind-bending possibility of why Ashley killed herself, if Ashley killed herself, and what has gone so magically, desperately wrong in the Cordova family that has allowed the patriarch to entice people into his grip for decades willingly, eagerly, knowing they may not be able to leave. In his darkness is his power. McGrath cannot leave him alone.

I must mention the extras. Pessl went further than text on a page by creating website pages, article clippings, photographs, and other remnants from Cordova’s life, which are all available to read and absorb inside in the book. Right after the prologue you’re given some twenty pages of web content from the New York Times that map out this bizarre man for its reader, which is unique way to set up a character you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re ever going to meet. Is it a lazy way to build a character? Some might say that, but I’m curled up in my bed thinking it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s enticing.

I feel like I’m failing this review because I’m not giving you details, but I simply can’t give them to you. They must unfold for you in their natural habitat. You must read this book. You must get sucked into Cordova’s world and figure it out for yourself.

Buy Night Film here. 

Book review: Housekeeping

housekeeping coverI’m tempted to call Marilynne Robinson a favorite writer of mine, but this is the only work of hers that I’ve read so I’d be saying it prematurely. (I have Gilead, Home, and Lila waiting for me, so perhaps I can qualify the statement here soon.)

Housekeeping is told from the point of view of Ruthie, an adolescent girl whose mother committed suicide and whose father is nowhere to be found. She and her sister Lucille were left in the care of their grandmother, and – what do you know – she died too. The orphans live in Fingerbone, an oppressive town known for the tragic train accident that killed the girls’ grandfather and for its propensity for flooding. Two oddball aging aunts from the Northwest come to care for Ruthie and Lucille, but they fret and become overwhelmed and decide to leave the girls with their final caregiver, the absent-minded, transient Aunt Sylvie. She feeds them dinner in the dark off makeshift plates from laundry detergent boxes.

From what I’ve just written, you’re probably thinking, “Those poor girls,” and you would be right to think so. Ruthie and Lucille have been abandoned in the worst way – through depression and tragedy and desperate measures. And yet, the book is wonderful. It’s engaging and engrossing. I would’ve read it more quickly than I did (it’s only 220 pages, after all) but the mundane bits of life have been incredibly distracting.

Housekeeping has been given such accolade that there’s not much more I can say to improve upon what’s already been said. One thing I’ll add – the narrative is so tightly written that you cannot skip a word. Not even one. Marilynne Robinson is a master at writing in Deep POV, a skill I badly want to hone. Her writing is poetic and brings the reader right into the moment without all that extra fat of explaining the scene. Dang, she’s good. If this book isn’t already on college reading lists, it should be.

Buy Housekeeping here.

Book Review: Help for the Haunted

This one will not make my top five favorites, or even my top ten. It’s going to swim somewhere in the middle of the 50 books I read this year and probably go unnoticed, and that’s because I don’t love a bait-and-switch story.

help for the hauntedWhen both Gillian Flynn and Khaled Hosseini recommend a book, I’m counting on it to be good. It’s not that Help for the Haunted isn’t good, as in bad character development, lack of action, uninteresting twists and turns. It’s that I was sold a book that I believed to be about the paranormal. I specifically chose to read this book during October because I thought it was about ghost hunting and demon possession and all that creepy stuff that’s only entertaining in October.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you here, but if you want me to spoil it for you via email, drop me a line.


From the author’s website: It begins with a call in the middle of snowy February evening. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation, helping “haunted souls” find peace. And yet, something in Sylvie senses that this call is different from the rest, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church’s red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep only to wake to the sound of gunfire.

Nearly a year later, we meet Sylvie again struggling with the loss of her parents, and living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened the previous winter.

As the story moves back and forth in time, through the years leading up to the crime and the months following, the ever inquisitive and tender-hearted Sylvie pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night, as she comes to terms with her family’s past and uncovers secrets that have haunted them for years.


Sounds interesting, right? Yes, I thought so too, and it is. Much of it is. I’d say the first 80% of the book is enthralling and curious. I love Sylvie. I want to bring her home with me. And yet, when the story was over, I felt like I’d been robbed a good ending. This isn’t a Gone Girl kind of ending; rather, it’s the kind of ending that doesn’t match the rest of the book.

Lastly, the going back and forth in time was a struggle for me, and it’s something I took note of as a writer. I blatantly toggle back and forth in my first book but I’m playing with time more loosely in the second. John Searles weaves time together so tightly that even the dialogue from two different timelines border one another. It was tricky. I didn’t love it.

Try not to see this as a negative review. You may read this book and love it. I hope you do! I liked it. It was fine. Just not my favorite.

Buy Help for the Haunted here.

Book review: The Shock of the Fall

When I saw Silver Linings Playbook a couple of years ago, in which one of the main characters is bipolar, I left the theater completely exhausted. The up-and-down mania was so well played that I felt I’d just experienced the episodes firsthand.

I felt the same way after finishing The Shock of the Fall.

The-Shock-Of-The-Fall-coverNarrated by Matthew Homes primarily from his stay in a mental institution, we learn that he’s never gotten over the sudden and strange death of his brother, Simon, who had Down Syndrome. In fact, it might have been Simon’s accident that spurred Matthew’s own neurosis, but that’s never made entirely clear.

When I say the story is narrated by Matthew, it is indeed written in first person, but based on Matthew’s mental state, I was never sure if his version of the story was true, embellished, or a version that exists only in his head. Some bits are told in the traditional straightforward manner, and others are told haphazardly, via typewriter in his room at the institution, where he’s vowed to get out all of his words and explain the last decade to us.

But his words are all over the place. It’s clear early on that Matthew is sick, and for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll leave it that.

We meet Matthew’s parents, who are strangely, oddly at ease with their son’s neurosis, and his one friend, Jacob, who doesn’t seem to mind Matthew’s violence and overlooks other oddball behaviors that scare away everyone else.

There are a number of nurses and institution employees (not nearly as entertaining as they are in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who pop in and out of the story, but even then I couldn’t fully rely on Matthew’s interpretation of events. After every chapter (if you could call them chapters), I wondered, “Was that real or imagined?”

This isn’t to say the book is bad. In fact, it’s won plenty of accolades to prove its genius. The author, Nathan Filer, worked in a mental hospital, an insight that showed itself throughout the story. No, it’s not bad, but it’s hard. It’s not an easy beach read; it’s not a book to breeze through. If you are interested in reading a truly unique work and have a dual interest in mental illness expressed through fiction, then this book is for you.

Buy The Shock of the Fall here. 

snakes and laddersRandom note: The story is set in Bristol, and even though the narrative isn’t fraught with English culture, one thing that stood out to me several times was Matthew’s references to the board game Snakes & Ladders. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “You mean Chutes & Ladders? That preschool game that never ends because as soon as you reach the top of the board you land on a slide and go back to the start?” Yeah, that game.

After a quick Googling, I learned that Chutes & Ladders originated in India as Snakes & Ladders, a far scarier version that I would’ve hated even more than the Americanized version. SNAKES & Ladders. Sliding down the backs of SNAKES is not my idea of fun.

So there you go.

Book review: Rescue

I think we’ve reached the first book – no, the second book – that I won’t recommend to you, and I feel really crappy about it.

The first book I’m not recommending is Summer People, which I read earlier in the year and didn’t review because I just couldn’t think of what to say. It was really dull and anti-climactic and I felt horrible saying that publicly.

Why do I feel bad? Because my work of fiction is not published and I’m very cautious about saying something negative about a work of fiction that IS published. Three years ago, I would’ve been freer with my words. I would’ve been far more comfortable saying, “Don’t waste your time!” or “That was the most boring piece of drivel ever!” or “Stephenie Meyer is the worse writer of life!” But now that I’ve put myself in a position to be weighed and measured, I’m more cautious. I’m less critical. I know different works speak to different people and everyone’s taste is specific.

RescueNow that I’ve explained myself, let me briefly tell you about Rescue. Webster is an EMT in a small New England town. He’s a generic guy. Nothing overly unique about him. One day he responds to a call that changes the course of his life. A young woman was driving drunk and got in a wreck. For some reason, he’s enamored with this woman – with Sheila. Is she attractive? I guess. He’s not even really sure why he’s drawn to her, but drawn he is, so much that he tracks Sheila down after being released from the hospital. She’s a bit put off by the EMT showing up on her doorstep, but whatever. They start dating! They have a moment of passion and bam – she’s pregnant.

They all-of-a-sudden get married and Sheila starts drinking again. She drives drunk with their baby and gets in a second car crash that results in the other driver getting severely injured. Instead of turning her over to authorities or sending her to rehab, Webster puts her in a car and sends her off. He kicks Sheila out of the state and he raises their daughter, Rowan, on her own.

Fast forward 18 years. Rowan is about to graduate high school. She’s moody. She’s dismissive. She’s a teenager and then some. Webster can’t figure out why. It never occurs to him that she may be missing her phantom mother. She starts drinking. She gets in an accident. Life repeats itself.

In short, Sheila returns and they start the process of sorting out 18 years of emotions.

The end.

I wanted to find something meaningful in this book but I just didn’t. It was a predictable story with characters who weren’t all that likable. Webster had a few redeeming qualities, but nothing to hang on to. There was an ongoing parallel of his EMT rescues mirroring the destruction in his own home, but it wasn’t a clever use of the literary device. Every chapter started with an EMT response to an emergency and every chapter ended with his own life falling apart. The equation was blatant.

So I’m not recommending this book to you unless you’re a diehard Anita Shreve fan and feel compelled to read the entirety of her work. In that case, you can buy Rescue here.

Book Review: We Were Liars

We were liarsThis book got a lot of accolade last year and was all the buzz among bloggers, BookTubers, and the GoodReads community. When a book gets that much attention, I’m drawn to it. The thing that gave me pause all of last year and much of this year is that it’s a Young Adult book. I don’t read YA for the single reason that teen angst makes me nuts.

Teen angst is why I read only the first Hunger Games book. Katniss and her nonsense – “Does Peeta really love me? Does he not love me? Is it all part of the game?” – made me hate the book so I did not read the rest. (Love the movies, though!)

Sure enough, there is teen angst in We Were Liars and it was a huge distraction.

Set in today’s time on the fictional Beechwood Island off the shore of Massachusetts, Cadence Sinclair Eastman tells an incomplete story of a recent tragedy that happened in her family.

Here’s a little background: Granddad Sinclair owns the island and built three houses on it for his three daughters. They all had children. There have been divorces and family fractures, and Grandma Sinclair recently passed away. Things haven’t been right with the Sinclair family for a while and the three daughters are fixated on winning their father’s favor, even if it means using their children as pawns. It’s really quite sickening.

The teenage cousins see the gluttony and greed in their mothers and they, too, find it sickening. The dichotomy of that scenario is that all of these children have lived a life of privilege. Granddad’s money has afforded them a lovely existence.

Then something happens. Something really tragic and horrible. But since we’re getting this story from Cady, we don’t know all the details. Her recollection is a patchwork of memories because she suffered some sort of accident that marred her memory. There’s an entire summer missing. Summer Fifteen is completely blank.

These are the four Liars: Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a friend of Johnny’s who’s been coming to island summers since he was eight. They run around the island together every summer, they get into trouble, they jump off cliffs and swim and get ice cream. Cady is smitten with Gat. Very much so, and it’s the angst in this relationship that becomes a huge distraction and made me not like the book for about 148 pages.

But then the twist happens – and it’s a big one. I knew a twist was coming and perhaps that’s why the relationship stuff was so distracting. I wanted to GET TO IT ALREADY. 

When I finally got to it, I was hooked. I read the last 80 pages in one sitting because I was enjoying the unfolding and resurfacing of Cady’s memory. The twist was great. It really was. Well done on the surprise, E. Lockhart. I did not see it coming.

Do I recommend this book to you? Yes, but only if the teen angst doesn’t bother you.

Buy We Were Liars here. 

Book review: The Art of Fielding

The-Art-of-FieldingHere’s a confession: The only reason I picked up this book was because of its fabulous lettering. The cover is gorgeous.

The second thing that caught my attention was that this is the author’s first novel. I love reading debuts if only for the frame of reference. It’s nice to know where a writer began.

Then I read the inside flap and quick-Googled a review. I found the hardback at our local used bookshop, so the price was right. Sold.

The story centers around five people, all interwoven on the fictional Westish College campus on the shore of Lake Michigan. First, there’s Henry, a baseball prodigy that Mike Schwartz takes under his wing to train and instruct. Mike is a year ahead of Henry and poised to enter law school upon graduation. Henry’s roommate is Owen, an openly gay and impeccably sharp student athlete who indulges in a relationship with the most unlikely person. College president Guert Affenlight is beloved on campus, yet as a never-married, once-a-heartthrob sixty-something year old, he’s still searching for real love. And finally, there’s President Affenlight’s daughter, Pella. She’s just hopped on a plane from San Fransisco, leaving her husband behind for good. The only place she knows to go is Westish.

One can assume these five people have a myriad of interactions that propel the story forward. Chad Harbach approaches each point of view with an authentic voice so you don’t feel like you’re “head jumping” and unable to keep track. Some assumptions are easy to make, others not so much. Against the backdrop of baseball, The Art of Fielding is about difficult relationships, sacrifices unrequited, and the lengths we’ll go to find some version of love and acceptance.

It’s a beautiful story, and even though I’m not a baseball fan I can appreciate the parallels Harbach draws between choices made both on and off the field. You can’t help but root for everyone to succeed in all endeavors. For what it’s worth, the end was my favorite part.

Buy The Art of Fielding here. 

Book Review: Lucky

LuckyI don’t remember the first time I saw the cover of Lucky (published in 1999), but when I did I know I put it in the same camp as The Lovely Bones. I thought it was another piece of fiction, and after the emotional scars left by The Lovely Bones, I needed a break from Alice Sebold, the same way you often need a break after reading Gillian Flynn. Humans can get too scary.

Then, when I was in Georgetown last September and visited The Lantern, I saw Lucky again and read the back. Memoir? Rape? I didn’t know that. Wow. Yes. I need to know this story.

Alice was a college freshman at Syracuse when a nighttime walk near campus resulted in a violent rape. Very violent. Thankfully, her aggressor was dumb enough to let her see his face, to talk to her, to leave DNA evidence on her body. For this reason alone, one might call her lucky. She was also lucky enough to run in to her rapist a year later on the street, and then lucky enough to aid in his arrest and subsequent conviction. That’s right. She was lucky enough to see her rapist be hauled off to Attica.

While the details of her story comfort those of us who need to see justice done, nothing about her story is lucky. She was raped. She was a young girl – a virgin, no less – physically and emotionally ripped to shreds. Alice carried her scars into all of her relationships, familial and otherwise. Because while her stitches healed and the rapist got 25 years, she is not, nor will she ever be, the same.

But how could she be? Though it seems like a flawed correlation to compare bad boyfriend decisions to being brutally raped by a stranger in a park at night, because those are too very different types of scars, they are scars nonetheless. We carry scars of all sorts into our relationships and subconsciously apply our fears and presumptions to innocent people. I know my own husband has been the recipient of anger I’ve had buried for more than 20 years. Unfair? Yes. Uncommon? Nope. That type of cataloguing is part of our humanity. It’s part of what fuels self-preservation.

Be warned. If you read this book, details of the attack are not watered down.

Buy Lucky here. 

The Book Depository

I’ve recently become an affiliate with the Book Depository, an online bookstore that offers free delivery and discounted prices. I’m excited to make this connection since I’m recommending books anyway and now I can provide a link for you to purchase them.

Of course, I advocate buying books from local bookstores (I’m a big fan of Southland), and borrowing from the library is great too, but if you’re already an online shopper and the lure of low prices gets you every time, then check out the Book Depository. Click the link below and start shopping!


Book Review: Pastrix

Pastrix coverI first heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber about two or three years ago when I was in a heavy place of re-evaluating and reclaiming my faith. Mostly, I was trying to figure out why the God of my teen and young adult years didn’t jive with the God I know today. My sources were changing drastically. Instead of endorsed material from the Southern Baptist Convention, I read books from other denominations that tackled subjects like baptism, hell, women in leadership, homosexuality, communion, and Jesus. (I am flummoxed at how differently denominations handle Jesus!) We also started recognizing the liturgical calendar. The more I read, the more convinced I became that God was much bigger than the box I put him in.

On my list of people to read was Nadia. I’d already read a handful of her blog posts and watched her in the Animate series. Based on her tattoos alone, I was intrigued. When the study group at my church chose Pastrix to read and discuss, I figured it was high time.

First, if you are offended by profanity, take heed. She does not back down from being her authentic self, f-words and all. It doesn’t offend me and I actually appreciate the transparency. Pastors are people, just like the rest of it.

Second, her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, is just that – a house for ALL. It is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and welcomes every soul through its doors. If the thought of worshiping God with a mixed bag of people makes you uncomfortable, you should definitely read this book.

Onto the book. Instead of being a dissection of the Christian tradition, Nadia uses this memoir as defining her pathway to reclaiming her own faith. She tells stories about her upbringing in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, her alcohol addiction, her dabbling in other faiths, and ultimately her choice to answer the call to ministry. The term “Pastrix” is used by “some Christians who refuse to recognize female pastors,” a topic I studied and settled a few years back.

The easiest way for me to sum up the book is to list the lessons I learned from it.

1. God is stellar at making something out of nothing. Be it the earth, our bodies, or our souls, He can take absolutely nothing and make it shine. In our total brokenness and despair, He’s right there in the muck working. Always.

2. The Bible tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31-39), so I’m choosing to believe that in its entirety. Nothing can separate us. Not our denominational differences, not our political disagreements, not our sexuality, not our nationality. Nothing. God’s love extends farther than we can see, above and beyond the rainbow and Confederate flags. That truth should comfort you.

3. Communion is a precious, personal, sacred act. No one should be denied it.

4. If we say we are “welcoming,” then our attitudes should reflect that, no matter who walks into our sanctuary – be it a transgendered teen whose parents have rejected him or Ann Coulter. God made them both, after all. Do we extend grace, or don’t we?

5. It’s not over until it’s over. If you are wading in the stagnant waters of your church, try swimming in another river. God is not finished with us until life on this earth is over. Always accept a faith challenge. Always ask questions. And if you want a tattoo, by damn go get one.


Buy Pastrix here.

 

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between OceansThis one took no time to finish because I couldn’t stop wondering how it would end. Major props to M.L. Stedman for pace and tension. Well played.

It’s April 27, 1926. Tom and Isabel Sherbourne live on Janus Island, just off the Australian shore, where Tom works as the lighthouse keeper. They are the only inhabitants of the island and they prefer it that way, except they want a family. Despite their overwhelming desire to have a child, none of their babies live past birth. In her makeshift graveyard on a small part of the island, Isabel has just buried her third baby. The pain is unbearable.

But then a dingy washes up carrying two people – a dead man and a live baby, no older than a month or two. It’s a sign. God has brought them a baby, or at least that’s how Isabel sees it. Tom is fraught with worry. Is it a sign? Where is this baby’s mother? Is it worth sacrificing more despair to write home and report their findings?

Tom buries the man and they decide to raise the baby – Lucy – as their own.

That is, until Tom cannot bear the lie anymore.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautiful story about mothering, risk, and the weight of lies. It’s about forgiveness and sacrifice, and the romantic mission of lighthouse keeping makes for a whimsical backdrop. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Buy The Light Between Oceans here.

Book Review: Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

You may not recognize the name Sara Gruen, but you probably recognize Water for Elephants – the beautiful novel, the romantic film. Riding Lessons was her first novel and I picked it up in a discount bin not long ago only because I’m always curious about first novels.

Riding lessonsThe story centers around the emotional breakdown of Annemarie Zimmer. We step into her world just as her father is diagnosed with ALS, her husband leaves her for another woman, and her fifteen-year-old daughter hates her guts. It’s not pleasant, but life requires her attention, so Annemarie packs up and heads home to New Hampshire, to the horse stable where she grew up and trained to be an Olympic rider, to help care for her dying father and figure out what comes next.

As one could imagine, her world is in disrepair. She never became that Olympic rider because an accident prevented her from competing. Her beloved horse, Harry, died and it broke her parents’ hearts to see her quit the equestrian world altogether. Coming back to New Hampshire, Annemarie thought she could slip ever so easily back into that lifestyle without making waves. Unfortunately, her efforts to manage the farm and care for her father, and repair the relationship with her daughter, are made more challenging when a crippled horse – who looks just like Harry – trots into her life.

I’ll say now that I didn’t enjoy Riding Lessons as much as I enjoyed Water for Elephants, but only because it didn’t have the same magic and whimsy (who doesn’t love a story about running away with the circus?). Still, Gruen’s writing was pleasant and fluid. It was a quick read and a redeeming story that deals with varying degrees of loss and the long road one must travel to find a new normal.

Buy Riding Lessons here.

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I acquired this book in November 2013, so to read it so long after its release feels unsupportive of Liz Gilbert and lazy on my part. She’s an inspiring person, and especially since I met her the night I got the book, I should’ve given it better attention from the start.

But (this is a valid but), I was still in graduate school and wasn’t reading for pleasure at all. All of 2014 was about reading for school and writing my own novel, so I purposely didn’t read any fiction. When grad school ended in December 2014, I picked up the first book that I’d been anticipating to read for a couple of years, Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. I saved it for a post-graduation Christmas treat.

Do you ever save books for a special time? Because you know the book is going to be well above par, emotionally exhaustive, or – simply – you want to give it your full attention?

That’s how I felt about The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t just casually pick it up. I had to pick it up with some level of intention. I’m taking the same care with Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. I have it, but the right time to read it hasn’t yet come along.

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things spans the entire life of Alma Whitaker, the unattractive mannish daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who grew his fortune in the botanical market. We start in the late 1700’s by learning how Henry Whitaker birthed that fortune by swindling and storming about the world with a keen mind for import and export. The history of Henry Whitaker is primarily important because Alma is so much like her father, and that’s important because Alma is unlike anyone most of us know.

She is brilliant from birth and follows in the steps of her father by studying botany. It’s an unusual career for a woman of the 1800’s, but few questioned her passions because everyone knew she had the mind for it. She wasn’t lovable in the romantic way so no one expected her to take a husband and bear litters of children.

So she devotes her entire life to botany, specifically the study of mosses.

Let me stop here and say that SOAT is not as dull as it sounds. Plants? Moss? An entire life devoted to plants and moss? In the 1800s?

Yeah, so it’s not the most thrilling topic, BUT! It isn’t without event and emotion. We follow Alma throughout every messy stage of her life and awkwardness abounds in nearly every situation – mostly because Alma cannot figure out the intentions of others. Why is her adopted sister so vacant? Conversely, why is the neighbor girl so blissfully boisterous at every turn? Does her father actually love her, and better still, does her mother? Why is the Dutch nursemaid so harsh? And painfully, will she ever, EVER know the touch of a man?

She is so plant-oriented that it isn’t until the fourth quarter of her life that she sees people for the rich role they played in her story. Additionally, it isn’t until the fourth quarter that all thing converge – the Earth, the past and present, humanity, and struggle, and her place in all of it. Furthermore, where is God?

I’m not trying to be vague, but I feel that if I get too descriptive I won’t be able to stop. The narrative is absolutely beautiful. Beauty-full. I mean, GOOD GRACIOUS she is such a good writer! I’m not even envious because Liz Gilbert and I are different planes and creative jealousy is unbecoming anyway. Her level of research must have been exhaustive because historical events and the timing of discovery merge seamlessly. I fully believe that Alma Whitaker existed. It would break my heart to learn she didn’t.

Not everyone has loved this book and for understandable reasons. For all the lovely words and beautiful places Gilbert takes us to, we are talking moss, aren’t we? There’s a lot of physical descriptions to muddle through, and though some bits were more lengthy than others (I’m talking about you, Tahiti), it didn’t feel overly tedious. One could say there were slow parts, but the only section that felt like it could be trimmed was Alma’s prolonged year in Tahiti, and even then, I wasn’t bothered entirely by it. I knew we were nearing the end of the story and things would wrap up soon.

In short, I loved the story. I love its depiction of a nineteenth century female scientist who did not settle but instead immersed herself in the passion that grabbed her. I loved her excursions and her hypotheses and how she never fully gave up on herself. Alma shows us that even into the last stage of life, we still have potential. We still have something to give and we definitely still have something to learn.

To be reminded of those things, it was worth the long journey.

Buy The Signature of All Things here. 

Book Review: The Night Circus

the night circusI didn’t know that a book could be completely vague and painfully detailed at the same time, but such is the case with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The hook is just vague enough – The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Why wouldn’t you want to read this? With its spectacular cover design and chimera, it feels like magic in your hands.

And it is, sort of.

Celia and Marco are bound in childhood to be opponents and the circus is their arena.  Set in Victorian time, these two are groomed for a duel they know little about. Their handlers are non-specific with information or they simply ignore the opponents’ questions. Celia and Marco don’t officially meet until adulthood, and even then, they don’t know they are to be one another’s opponent until they’ve already started having feelings for each other.

Cue Romeo and Juliet. The lovers cannot be together because they just can’t.

Does this talk of dueling seem vague? It’s meant to be, because throughout the entire book I kept asking, “Why must it be this way? Are the instructors so self-absorbed that they must train magicians to duel each other, just to prove who’s better? Is it all about ego?”

Apparently, yes.

Competition aside, Morgenstern creates a spectacular scene with her fantasy circus. Going into the book I expected it to be all illusion, hints and whiffs of magic but knowing it was all a trick. This isn’t the case with The Night Circus, for it is indeed other worldly. It is a complete fantasy, with its manipulation of time and space, its physical distortions, and the way in which one person controls everything.

I feel it’s important for you to know this in case reading fantasy fiction isn’t your thing. It’s not really my thing, so I spent much of the book saying, “That couldn’t happen” or “That’s not real.” Of course it’s not real. It’s fantasy.

If you can suspend your disbelief and recreate Morgenstern’s circus in your head, then the narrative is a delight. She created the kind of show we all wanted to see when we were kids. It’s rumored that The Night Circus will be a movie, and if that’s true, I’ll definitely see it because this is the sort of story that requires a visual. There is no big top, no lion tamers, no clowns. Instead there are a menagerie of black-and-white-striped tents that show up in the middle of the night and they’re all begging you to take a peek inside… and believe.

Buy The Night Circus here. 

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret

Holy moly. I read The Husband’s Secret in three days. It would’ve been one day had I no children or a coonhound who wants to play RIGHT NOW IMMEDIATELY all the time.

the husband's secretI’ve not read any of Liane Moriarty’s work before, but now I’m turned on to her. The narrative flits back and forth between three main characters, and once you get used to it you won’t have whiplash. Her writing is crisp and fluid. As a bonus, the story is set in Australia.

First, there is Cecilia. Her husband, John-Paul, wrote a letter to her many years ago, just after their first child was born. The letter was lost, or so John-Paul thought, but it resurfaced in Cecilia’s hands all of a sudden. It takes her about 100 pages to finally open and read it. Shock ensues.

Then there’s Tess. Her husband, Will, and cousin, Felicity, who is more like a sister than cousin, announce that they are in love. Life changes immediately. More shock.

Finally, there’s Rachel. She lives in a world of hurt every day because her teenage daughter was murdered twenty-some years ago. Making matters worse, the man she believes to be responsible for Janie’s death is a the P.E. teacher at the school where she works. Every day is a black cloud. Plus, her only son is moving to New York with his wife and son, Rachel’s only grandchild.

Life for these three women is chaos with crazy in the middle. They are all hanging on by a thin, fragile thread, so you can imagine how intense it gets when their three lives collide.

Buy The Husband’s Secret here.

Book Review: The Circle

This image must have been used for promotion since it pinpoints the release date (which was in 2013), but I included it in this post because the description of The Circle is dead on.

the circle

Imagine that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google decided to mesh their businesses into one. They set up one account that’s entirely YOU – all of your information in under one name, one file, floating in the cloud. They set up closed-circuit cameras everywhere and encourage expect you to post photos and videos from all of your daily activities, because it would be selfish of you not to share every aspect of your life with others. You are to comment on other’s posts and invite everyone into your network. Everything you do online is tracked, sorted, tagged, and rated in the business’s database for easy access. This is all so we can be in community with one another, connected in every way possible, and entirely invested in each other’s lives.

Yes, I’m feeling claustrophobic too. But I tell you what friends, you need to read The Circle. It is the best cautionary tale of our time.

Mae Holland is twenty-four years old and just landed a job at The Circle, a company designed to meet your every need online and otherwise. Of course it’s based in northern California. Its campus is all-inclusive – meals, dormitories, lecture halls, health clubs, and everything else one might need to enjoy life. In between all the perks are the work stations and glass walls – because everything at The Circle is transparent. Transparency, according to the The Wise Men who created the company, is the only way to live. If we’re all laid bare, no one can keep secrets and then no one can get hurt.

Mae immediately buys into the notion that The Circle’s ideology is sound. If our best interests are at the center of these programs, where’s the harm? And sure, she’ll swallow a sensor so The Circle’s medical team can monitor her vitals 24/7.

Oh friends, if I could implore you to read one book this year, it’s this one. It feels blasphemous to type this review on a blog, knowing I’ll post it on my Facebook page and then link it in my Twitter feed. Everything about The Circle makes me want to go off the grid and go back to a time of snail mail and passing notes and not needing a single password to conduct my life. If ever there was a story that makes me question the power of technology and social media, it’s this one.

Conceptually, The Circle is a home run. The characters, however, are straight up archetypes. They are as predictable as they come, though in this case that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found myself so wrapped up in the company and its on-goings that the characters were secondary to the plot. That almost doesn’t make sense, but if you consider that companies like The Circle already exist, you”ll spend all 497 pages wondering if this level of insanity will exist in your lifetime.

And then you want to delete every social media account you have.

Buy The Circle here. 

Book Review: The God of Animals

thegodofanimalsAlice Winston is a pensive girl and the entirety of this book is an outpouring of her thoughts throughout a snippet of her childhood. Her family owns a horse ranch in Desert Valley, Colorado, and at the start of the book her mother has secluded herself in the bedroom in a deep depression, her older sister, Nona, has run off to marry a rodeo star, and her father is scraping together every penny to keep the stable in business. Also, a classmate of Alice’s was found dead in a canal. A gray cloud hovers over Desert Valley and spirits are low.

I’d like to say that everything turns around and all is well in the end, but this book is so true to life that it would be disingenuous to tie up every loose end with a bow. The reality is that Alice is deeply lonely. Her mother is emotionally unavailable, her big sister abandoned her, and her father is entirely focused on the farm. What’s a young girl on the cusp of adulthood supposed to do with all that restless energy?

Whatever she wants, apparently.

There’s an inappropriate relationship with a teacher, the beating of a horse with a hammer, and an entourage of rich women who congregate in the stable to visit their horses and drink wine. Alice cannot make sense of any of it.

Of the books I’ve read so far this year, The God of Animals ranks high. The narrative is equally heartbreaking and beautiful. It may not be the most cheerful story, but that doesn’t mean is isn’t dripping with sentiment and relevance. This was Aryn Kyle’s first novel, born out of a short story called Foaling Season. Both were well-received. I’m not at all surprised.

Buy The God of Animals here.

Book Reviews: The Longings of Wayward Girls and Help Thanks Wow

The Longings of Wayward GirlsI found this book at a discount store for $2.99, and after reading it, I would’ve paid more. That in itself is a good plug.

The Longings of Wayward Girls follows two seasons of Sadie’s life – in early adolescence and post-marriage/kids adulthood. We go back and forth from her snobby neighborhood pranks to her brash decision making as a wife and mom, both of which lead to chaos. As a young girl, she and a friend play a horrible prank on a less popular girl, just before the girl goes missing. Fast forward to adulthood, Sadie realizes that many games are still in play. We’re all a bunch of children when whittled down. None of us, it seems, ever really grow up.

It’s hard to speak about a book like this without giving away details that matter. I can tell you that Sadie’s mother killed herself and left a scar in her so deep that you have to wonder how any of us ever heal from childhood tragedy. And even though Sadie’s husband is lovely and her two children are darling, sometimes it’s just not enough. There’s something to be said of our longings, even the ones we don’t understand.

The New York Times quote on the front cover says, “Enthralling… Once you’ve discovered this haunted world, you won’t want to leave it.” I found that statement to be accurate.

Buy The Longings of Wayward Girls here. 


 

Help Thanks WowIn keeping with my Lent reading, I finished Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow and have moved on to A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.

Anne Lamott is a great writer. Frank, to the point. She doesn’t waste time and space, which I appreciate. She’s also humorous, which is always a plus.

Help Thanks Wow is brief, and though I normally appreciate brevity, I think this book could use more meat. Her intent, I believe, was to strip down prayer to its most honest, meaningful purpose – to appeal for help, to live in a state of thanksgiving, and to marvel at all God does for us. I agree that those three points serve a plumb lines for our prayer life. Lamott offers anecdotes to support her position, most of which are delightful stories, some more moving than others.

At the end, I expected to feel like I’d encountered a new way of viewing prayer but I have to be honest and say instead I thought, “This is nothing new.” It’s Philippians 4:6 without the “Wow.”

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice read, but it wasn’t groundbreaking. More than anything, it was a reminder that sometimes being brief with God is enough, especially when you just can find any other words to say.

Buy Help Thanks Wow here. 

Book Reviews: Seventy-Seven Clocks and Dark Places

seventy seven clocks coverI have no experience with Christopher Fowler books, but based on Seventy-Seven Clocks, I won’t be trying out his work again anytime soon. I picked up the book for two dollars at a used book store in Georgetown last September. A crime novel? Okay. A Peculiar Crimes Unit? I’m intrigued!

Right away you know Christopher Fowler is a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan, and while I’d like to think this series of crime stories is an homage to Sherlock Holmes, it failed to hook me in every way. Where Doyle was succinct and clever, Fowler was repetitive and predictable.

London Detectives May and Bryant of the Peculiar Crimes Unit have to figure out who’s behind a string of bizarre deaths – rat poison, snake venom, spontaneous explosion – and catch the guy before another member of a large, prominent family dies. The peculiarity of the story is interesting enough to keep reading, but the space between crimes is long and the constant retelling of the facts is boring. I wanted to like this book but indeed I didn’t. I was even tempted to quit halfway through, but there’s something very unnatural about that. I’ve only done it once – with A Casual Vacancy – and it still feels like I abandoned someone.

Buy Seventy-Seven Clocks here.


Let’s move on to a book that rocked my socks off. Dark Places. Good golly.

For all the ways Gone Girl made me question denouements, Dark Places left me wondering what goes on in Gillian Flynn’s head. Does she sleep with a nightlight on? Does her husband keep a constant eye on her, you know, just in case?

Dark placesLibby Day lives in a very sad reality. She was seven years old when her teenage brother, Ben, murdered their mother and two sisters. Quite violently, in fact. The family was losing their farm, their jerk of a father only came around for hand-outs, and Ben had begun dabbling in devil worship. Two decades later, she’s living on the fringe. Nearly broke, the kleptomaniac has no real relationships, no self-respect, and no hope. She only thinks of suicide casually now, so there’s a plus.

In a desperate need for money (and a subconscious need to find out what really happened all those years ago), Libby agrees to do some detective work on the murders on behalf of the Kill Club, a group of obsessed people who role play and plead innocence for the incarcerated. They all say Ben is not guilty.

Seriously, they’re all so messed up.

The truth finally surfaces, and once I was on the cusp of that truth I couldn’t put down the book. Gillian Flynn – again – tells a completely CRAZY story of people whom I can barely imagine, but she does it so beautifully that you sort of don’t care that Libby isn’t lovable or that the Kill Club people should find other ways to spend their time. Her storytelling is impeccable. Five stars for sure.

Buy Dark Places here. 

Two days in Horrorstör

I don’t normally finish books in two days, but this one was a quick read. The short page count helped, but it was primarily the tension in the story that kept me enthralled. Once I was in ORSK, I couldn’t leave until the mystery was solved.

First, the cover. If you’ve been in an IKEA, the design concept is entirely familiar to you. In every way the book is designed to make you think of IKEA. The author even references IKEA just in case you’re not sure. The store, in this case, is ORSK, the American version of IKEA and it’s designed to entrap its customers in a counterclockwise maze of home goods and office furniture (just like IKEA). You can eat meatballs in the cafeteria and peruse the make-shift kitchens and living rooms and pretend they’re your own  (just like IKEA). Everything is hard to pronounce so you can’t call anything by it’s actual name (just like IKEA). You get the gist.

Gotta love the back side:

Horrorstor

The story begins with Amy, a dissatisfied ORSK employee, who’s asked to participate in a secret overnight shift to help determine why strange things are happening at the store – odd smells and stains, broken pieces of furniture, other unexplained occurrences that aren’t being caught on the security cameras. Along with Amy’s boss, a third employee agrees to the overnight shift and thus begins the adventure. The entire book lasts one full night in ORSK.

I cannot overstate the brilliance of the book design. Every chapter is named after a piece of furniture that applies to the content of the story. In keeping with the horror genre, the chapters (and furniture) become more gruesome.

Horrorstor chapter

The front matter of the book offers you a showroom map so you can keep track of where the characters are throughout the story.

Inside Horrorstor

This is not just about the solving of a crime. It’s a true horror story with blood and pus and other things that made me squirm. I don’t normally read this sort of fiction but aesthetics of Horrorstör captured me. I love IKEA, with its cheap batteries and meatballs with gravy. I read this book if only to enjoy the parody of the Swedish box store. In the end, it was a thrilling and creative read.

Buy Horrorstör here.